Harper Lee Reborn With A Row In Tow

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

It is a Ripley story, sequel to a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic published half a century ago. It marks the re-emergence of its writer 88-year-old Harper Lee on the western literary horizon. Her only novel To Kill A Mocking Bird sold a million copies when it first appeared in 1960 and went on to sell nearly as many copies every year afterwards. The latest news about her is the coming into light of a new novel of hers after Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carteer, riffling through her client’s papers, had stumbled upon a manuscript. Ms. Carter came across the manuscript in August last year and negotiated the book deal with Harper Collins. Lee was supposed to have written it as a follow-up to Mocking Bird, soon after she had done her first novel and forgot about it.

Harper Collins surprised the literary world early this month, claiming Harper Lee is to publish her second novel, the one her lawyer had come upon,. This announcement started a controversy about whether the reclusive, 88-year-old novelist is of sound mind.   A midst clashing views about her mental health the Alabama Securities Commission ordered an investigation into her mental condition,

After an agent of the Alabama Commission had interviewed Lee, the commission’s head said he was satisfied she wanted a second book published. Ms. Lee — known to many as Nellie, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations

The name of the new novel is Go Set A Watchman, which Harper Collins is determined to bring out in July despite doubts about whether Lee was in a state of mind good enough to have permitted the novel’s publication.

In this manner, both the excavated novel, and the cantankerous writer (she hasn’t given an interview, not even to Oprah Winfrey, after 1960, the year of the novel’s first publication) are in the news, the writer because of her health and the novel because of an uncertain permission to publish it. She was afraid of publishing the book because everyone would compare her to Scout, the little warring pugnacious tomboy who is the first person narrator of Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo” — Boo Radley, the boy who does not leave his house to join Scout and her brother Jem in their adventures.

Go Set a Watchman, the second novel, is already number one in the bestseller list at online bookstore Amazon, where the 304-page hardback is available for pre-order ahead of its July release. This is expected to be the biggest title of the year for Harper Collins.

People who knew the writer knew Mocking Bird, which I had just finished reading, is personal history, its locale and its characters as real as the Statue of Liberty. Most of the characters have real-life referents, and Scout’s delicate friend Dill is clearly well-known writer Truman Capote. He was Nellie’s first writing partner and her social fixer in New York.

Around three generations of American school-going children have read Mocking Bird as it was part of school curriculum. Some parents named their children after Scout, the imp that dominates the novel. When British librarians ran a poll in 2006, fiftieth anniversary of the novel, asking adults which book they should read before they die, Mocking Bird came first and the Bible second.

I thought I was alone in regarding Scout Lee as the protagonist of the novel and not Atticus Lee, played by Gregory Peck in the Oscar-winning film version of the novel. The six-year-old girl, too domineering for her age, monopolizes the narrative. She is not afraid of talking back to her teacher Caroline. Her short sentences reveal her personality: “I am not going to sass you; you better cut it out this red hot minute; Francis provocated me enough to knock his block off.”

Atticus, the father, comes off as a benign Cronin protagonist. His film personality doesn’t comfortably match his personality in the book. One of the not so principal characters is the cook Calipurnia delighting us with her southern dialect.

Here something about the writer needs to be said because Mocking Bird has strong shades of an autobiography. Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, as Nellie Harper Lee, the first name being her grandmother’s. Many people still know her by that name. From here, Mocking Bird begins to be subtly real life. Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee was a lawyer who in those days of racial tensions defended two black persons, a father and son, accused of murdering a white storekeeper. In Mocking Bird, the protagonist Atticus Lee, is supposed to be a representation of Harper’s father who was also a lawyer, who defends a black youth accused of raping a white girl. Harper Lee again is a real life replication of Scout Lee, the rebellious tomboy who strikes terror in the hearts of boys older than her and constantly hectors her elder brother Jem.

Much against the wishes of her father who wanted her to become a lawyer like her elder sister Alice, she, with great faith in her writing skills, goes to New York. After eight years of hard life doing odd and menial jobs, she finishes a manuscript and shows it to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B.Lippincott, an American publishing house. It read like a series of short stories. At Hohoff’s suggestion she rewrote it, taking two and a half years. Finally, Lippincott published Mocking Bird in 1960 under the name of Harper Lee, who dropped her first name Nellie.

In 2011 President Obama awarded the National Medal of Arts to Harper Lee. She now lives in a shell of privacy, impermeable..

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